Chris Young verdict: Sunderland in need of a pick-me up

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STOKE City provided the Alka-Seltzer to Sunderland’s derby hangover last season.

Sunderland’s punch-drunk players cleared their heads just six days after their St James’s Park mauling with a face-saving victory over the Potters, albeit with a fortuitous reprieve for Lee Cattermole’s volleyball skills.

This time around, the sore heads and sense of nausea have lasted a month.

All the scrutiny on Sunderland and talk of pressure growing on Steve Bruce ultimately stems from losing to Newcastle.

If Sunderland had taken two points from any other four games, supporters would rightfully be concerned, but there wouldn’t be the same cloud of doom.

The derby overshadows every other result though and that’s why it’s not “just another game”.

Fans have turned their ire towards Bruce and players have suffered a noticeable dip in confidence. Defeat against the Magpies is to blame for both.

The only way for Sunderland to banish the sense of negativity is to win ... and then win again quickly.

Stoke are not necessarily the team to face when the chips are down though.

Much talk has gone into how Stoke can challenge the top six with their summer acquisitions on board and the fresh faces have undoubtedly injected some quality into Tony Pulis’ side.

But for Jonathan Woodgate, the best of the bunch, it’s always that susceptibility to the treatment table which lets him down.

The former Newcastle and Middlesbrough man missed last weekend’s win over Liverpool with a recurrence of a hamstring problem and was left out of last night’s Europa League tie.

Peter Crouch, Asmir Begovic and Matthew Etherington were also granted a reprieve from travelling to the Ukraine, although the trio, along with Woodgate, could all feature on Sunday.

Crouch and fellow signing from Spurs Wilson Palacios ideally fit into Stoke’s plan of operations and only serve to increase the average height of Pulis’ side.

Thankfully, the long ball game doesn’t seem to translate as well on the road as on the narrow pitch of the Britannia Stadium, with just 12 points taken away from home last season.

But given Sunderland’s return of eight defeats in nine at the Stadium of Light and that Stoke have already won on the road this time around, it’s not necessarily an encouraging omen.

As ever against Stoke, success or failure depends on standing up to the physical test, particularly from set-pieces – ominously Sunderland’s area of weakness over the last 12 months.

If you can match Stoke physically, then there isn’t much else from Pulis’ side, with the flair of Etherington and Jermaine Pennant harnessed by the direct approach.

Bruce’s men didn’t do that at the Britannia in February.

Craig Gordon couldn’t cope with the pressure on his goal and Sunderland imploded. The onus is on Simon Mignolet to do better this time around.

Mignolet doesn’t lack courage and he should be boosted by the return of John O’Shea, providing the Irishman comes through training unscathed.

It’s not the biggest blow in the world if O’Shea replaces the suspended Phil Bardsley, with the 6ft 4in summer signing at least providing an extra aerial presence alongside Wes Brown and Titus Bramble.

Recalling O’Shea will be a no-brainer for Bruce. The bigger decision comes with who occupies the midfield slots.

Sunderland fell short in the middle of the park against Chelsea, with the similar Jack Colback, Craig Gardner and Lee Cattermole not providing the necessary spark of creativity in a 4-5-1.

Bruce is likely to tinker with his formation on Sunday, and it could be a straightforward 4-4-2.

Sunderland lined up with a 5-4-1 on their last visit to the Britannia and it worked effectively, with Bruce’s side by far the livelier outfit.

And it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Bruce again departs from the norm with his system.

But they must ensure there is some support for Nicklas Bendtner, with the on-loan Arsenal man too often ploughing a lone furrow against Chelsea.

Bendtner is one who won’t suffer a dip in his confidence, no matter how long Sunderland’s sluggish start continues.

Connor Wickham could come in to add some extra height and muscle that is always useful against Stoke.

Verdict: Draw